Christian Response to Sri Lankan Challenges in Becoming the Church In Sri Lanka to the Church of Sri Lanka

Christian response to Sri Lankan challenges in becoming the Church in Sri Lanka to the Church of Sri Lanka


Adaptation began in the Christian church as a natural process in settling into the realities of Sri Lanka. This process can especially be identified in the areas of language and the issues related to pastoral ministry, even long before independence. First of all, on their arrival, the Portuguese were forced to study Sinhala and Tamil, the main languages of the people of Sri Lanka.

When they began to proclaim the Christian Gospel they gradually began to realise the importance of the local languages although they conducted their worship in Latin. In order to proclaim the Gospel the Portuguese staged dramas in Sinhala and Tamil by adopting these local languages into their style of drama. The Dutch Reformed Church was responsible for translating portions of the Bible and some hymns into Sinhala and Tamil in this process of adaptation.

These adaptations sprang up from the Dutch Reformed Church rather spontaneously in the background of the Reformation in the Western Christian Church in which the reformers were the first to adopt local resources in their efforts towards evangelisation. Yet this adaptation was more close to transplantation. In this process, Christians were not sensitive to the aspects that they borrowed or adopted into Christianity.

The main reason for this was that in this kind of adaptation Christians were more interested in the end results without much consideration of what happened in between in this process. Yet this kind of natural adaptation helped immensely in making Christianity a rooted reality in the affairs of Sri Lanka. Even up to date this method of adaptation is in operation in churches such as Holy Emmanuel, Rawatawatte, and Moratuwa, where the translations of Western hymns are sung with Western tunes in their worship.

In this regard, regarding natural adaptation in the concepts and thought forms of people D. Light Jr., and S. Keller have noted,

No custom is good or bad, right or wrong in itself; each one must be examined in light of the culture as a whole and evaluated in terms of how it works in the context of the entire culture. Anthropologists and sociologist call this culture relativity. Although this way of thinking about culture may seem self-evident today, it is a lesson that anthropologists and the missionaries who often preceded them to remote areas learned the hard way, by observing the effects their best intentions had on peoples whose way of life was quite different from their own.

Where the Roman Catholic faith is concerned, a kind of natural adaptation took place in the concepts and thought forms of the believers. In the popular Roman Catholic faith, there are rituals and ceremonies that are very similar to those in the popular Buddhist and Hindu faiths. Belief in tribal gods for different needs and wants of everyday life was gradually replaced by the adoption of converts of the various saints of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, the fisherfolk seek help from St. Anthony while those who want healing pray to St. Sebastian for help. This is very visible in Moratuwa in churches like St. Sebastian’s, Moratuwa, and St. Anthony’s, Kadalana, where people flock to pray to these Saints.

The pilgrimage in faith by the various communities is natural to ordinary Buddhists and Hindus. Even in the Catholic Church, this sort of pilgrimage became important to keep faith alive. Just as annual temple and Kovil processions were important for Buddhists and Hindus respectively, for Roman Catholics their annual feast and procession for the patron saint became the central festival of the local Church. In Buddhism, the monks are celibate and not married. The parallel discipline of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church really became meaningful to the Roman Catholic believers in this process of adaptation.

Up to date these celibate priests, pilgrimages, processions and annual church feasts are meaningful to Roman Catholics in Moratuwa to keep up their faith and to get inspiration to face the troubles, challenges and tribulations of everyday life.

The use of visual aids in worship in the Roman Catholic faith naturally became adopted not only by believers but also by people of other faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism. They kept the Roman Latin status in their churches to direct people in their worship. Colourful ceremonies involving incense and the use of vestments and liturgical colours by the priests were gradually into the Sri Lankan context. The reason for this was that these things are so natural in the worship of Sri Lankan religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism.

Here we see that converts to the Roman Catholic faith did not understand the saints in the way in which the missionaries had introduced them. The main intention of the missionaries had been to show how the saints portrayed the characteristics of Jesus in their lives. However, instead of understanding the saints for their characteristics of Jesus, they began to worship them almost as local gods. This is visually evident in Moratuwa in houses and churches where there can be found a big statue of the patron saint and a smaller statue of Jesus.

According to their former primitive belief, the patron saint is more important than Jesus. Similarly, other customs such as the celibacy of priests and the worshipping of statues were also adopted by people but not exactly in the way in which the missionaries had intended. Buddhist monks remain single in order to renounce the world, but Roman Catholic priests remain single due to the doctrine of their mystical marriage to Christ.

Theoretically, therefore, Roman Catholic priests remain single in order to have more contact with people. Thus this became a kind of discovery in society. In sociology, the term “discovery” is used to explain the new use of old customs. When this discovery was put into practice by the converts to the Roman Catholic faith it became an agent of social change.